Sick and the City

There was a time in my life when I enjoyed being sick.  Sometimes I would want to be sick so badly that I would fake it in order to enjoy the benefits of a brief dalliance with a malady.  That’s because, when you’re a kid there is nothing better in the world than being doted on by your mother, downing grape-flavored Dimetapp, and avoiding a group reading of The Bridge to Terabithia.  As an adult, being sick means an unwelcome lapse in productivity that is preferably saved for the family’s annual vacation to Hawaii, not sitting in bed coughing up a lung.  But when you’re in third grade and you’ve come down with a cold, the fact that you’re producing more mucus than schoolwork really doesn’t faze you.  The world – or your world, for that matter – doesn’t stop if you don’t finish your math homework.

As an adult I have come to loathe illness.  Why?  Because being sick sucks.  And being sick in New York really sucks.  The first time I experienced what it was like to be city sick was in February of 2003.  My fever raged for a few days before I broke down and went to the school hospital.  This trip involved walking my achy, feverish body twelve blocks in a blizzard.  Okay, it wasn’t really a blizzard, but it was about seventeen-degrees outside.  Combined with my outrageously high body temperature, I pretty much wanted to die no matter what they told m once I got there.

Diagnosis: pneumonia. Awesome.

Today is not so dire.  Per my mother’s only birthday request, I am now sitting in the dismal brown lobby of a 1970s building housing this medical center and a Bank of America, waiting for a doctor to tell me that my sinuses are swollen and I have a cough, both of which I know already.  My mom is too far away to spoon-feed me Dimetapp, but she can still make satellite demands on my life.  In respect of her concern and paranoia, I do look, sound, and feel like complete shit.  Her true mommy-ness comes out when she starts rattling on about “a compromised immune system.”  Nothing like scaring your kid about having cancer or the HIV.

While I wait, sitting not so patiently in my black vinyl chair, I attempt to reel in an endless flow of snot with the assistance of sandpaper tissues that I associate with public school classrooms.  At home, I am able to just stick two wads of toilet paper up my nostrils.  Here, not so much.  Even more exhausting is trying to hold back the guttural coughs dying to escape my lungs so that I don’t have to wear one of the masks sitting at the front desk.

I fill out my forms, realizing that when I purchased my slew of vitamins at Duane Reade yesterday I didn’t notice the hilarity in my multi-vitamin pack being named “Cold War.”  This is what happens when boogers put pressure on my brain.  There is a section of the paperwork titled “Prevention” that includes standard questions like “Do you exercise?   If so, how often?” and “Do you smoke?”  Stranger though are the slew of questions related not so subtly to domestic violence:

–       Have you ever been threatened or physically hurt (slapped, kicked, punched) by your partner?

–       Do you ever feel afraid of your partner?

–       If there is a gun in your home, is it out of children’s’ reach and unloaded?

–       Have you ever engaged in any activity which has put you at risk for AIDS?

Jesus Christ.  Where am I?  I hand my paperwork in with its optimistic slew of “No” answers characteristic of most fortunate upper-middle class white chicks.

And then I wait.

Time drags on as though on a journey through viscous gravy.  Trudging, trekking, slugging along.  Congestion builds in my head and I wonder what the doctor would say if I requested voluntary decapitation.  As it’s our first time meeting, I would imagine he’d be hesitant to cooperate.

To distract myself from myself, I begin watching hospital patrons enter from the sliding elevator doors, which proves unsurprisingly depressing.  First up: a caretaker and her charge.  The older woman sits in a wheelchair, her back to me and her face reflected in the mirror against the closest wall.  She looks old: skin hanging off of skin, hanging off of more skin.  I wonder what happens to a person when your face just becomes that nondescript, ancient mess of de-elasticized flesh, where nothing hints to what it once was, not even in the slightest.

The woman’s pink sweater matches the pink plastic flower in her hair and around her neck is a pink scarf tied by the book.  The toes of her white cotton socks peak out of her black orthopedic sandals.  Her hands face palm down on both thighs.  Right hand: right leg.  Left hand: left leg.  She stares forward.  Her caretaker schedules her next appointment for her in June “after her lunch.”

I divert my attention away from the caretaker placing the old woman’s arms into her jacket, arm by arm.  Outside, the trees blow sideways in a cold wind.  Its organic and fluid nature contrasts with the cinderblock pillars supporting this bland excuse for a building.

By the time I turn my attention back to the lobby, it is filled with two new old people.  A very tall, thin woman wearing a silk headscarf over her course gray hair holds the arm of a much shorter man, shuffling his feet slowly.  His pace is so sloth-like that the tapping of his walking cane comes only every two seconds or so, beating like a metronome.  “There’s your friend,” she turns to him and smiles with this good news, “There, in the back.”  She turns her attention away from her old friend and waves further down the hallway.  She has a soft patience that I have never been capable of.

“Miss Jennifer?”

My name is called and I take my paperwork to another holding area.  I watch as a small man through the Plexiglas comes towards me, mispronouncing my last name as he ushers me inside.

I tell him my symptoms and he types away on a boxy PC, something I find to be rather impersonal despite my awareness that we live in a technological age.  He then taps away on my back and chest with a triangular rubber bit usually used to check knees for reactionary skills.  He sticks something up my nose to admire my snot.  He uses a stethoscope to listen to my buggered up lungs.  And then he steps away from me and informs me that I simply have a cold.  As happy as I am that I am not dying, I would like to request that my co-pay be forfeited on account of having not spent more than four minutes with this man.  Then again, my insurance company deserves to shell out some more dough for this relatively low maintenance girl.


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